12/06/2010 11:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating the Next Generation of Sustainability Professionals

Teaching the physical dimensions of sustainability- the use of natural resources to build products and structures, waste management and the impact of humans on our plant's ecosystems- presents a challenge to the nation's business and public policy schools. Most of these schools focus on economics, finance, politics and management, but ignore science, engineering and architecture. While environmental scientists understand the need to study public policy and encourage their students to explore these fields, management and policy educators continue to ignore their students' need for greater scientific literacy. My view is that the physical dimensions of sustainability are now a critical factor and should be taught as a routine component of organizational management for both government and private organizations.

As an academic and a practitioner, I have spent my career alternating between a concern for environmental policy and for more effective organizational management. Until the last decade I kept these two areas of inquiry distinct. In developing two masters programs at Columbia over the past ten years, I have found it possible and necessary to combine the two areas. In 2002 I first combined environment and organizational management when I led a team that designed and taught a workshop in applied environmental management in our new one year Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy. Each year in the workshop course, we take an environmental bill or treaty that has been proposed, but not enacted, and simulate the start up of that program.

Over the past two semesters I have had the pleasure of working with a group of very talented Columbia Masters students on the implementation of the proposed "cash for caulkers program." In that workshop I am one of five faculty and sixty students working on five different environmental programs. If you'd like to know more about this course, our program's web site includes student workshop reports since 2003.

That workshop course is a key requirement in an intensive one year program jointly offered by Columbia's Earth Institute and School of International and Public Affairs. Students in that program complete 54 points of graduate credit in three consecutive semesters. This program requires 12 points of environmental science, as well as a set of economics and environmental policy courses. The workshop is part the program's 3 course management requirement.. A core concept in the course is that one does not trade off environmental protection and effective management, but that organizations that do not protect the environment are, by definition, poorly managed. A related concept is that cost effective environmental policy requires that government focus attention on issues of feasibility and organizational capacity. A regulation that is not realistic will not be implanted.

As the full time masters program became better known, we started to find people in the New York metro region that wanted a program that combined management and environmental policy, but could not afford to leave work to pursue these studies. For that reason the Earth Institute worked with Columbia's School of Continuing Education to develop a new Masters of Science program in sustainability management. That program began in September with over 100 students. Next month another 40 will join us, and by next fall, over 200 students will be receiving training to be sustainability managers.

For that program and graduate students throughout our university, I've designed and started teaching a new course entitled "Sustainability Management." This course covers basic organizational management, management innovation and topics ranging from sustainable food to sustainable cities. The course used over a dozen case studies and thousands of pages of readings to combine traditional organizational management with issues of environmental sustainability. This course is considered an integrative course in Sustainability Management. Students enrolled in the new Masters of Sustainability Management complete these integrative courses along with courses in four other areas of management and sustainability. The 36-point program includes five required areas of study:

  1. Integrative Courses in Sustainability Management. Here we focus on the complex interactions between natural and social systems which sustainability practitioners must always consider.
  2. Economics and Quantitative Analysis. Sustainability managers must understand the financial costs and benefits of sustainability practice. The quantitative analysis requirement gives students the necessary tools to utilize data samples when analyzing complex, large scale management issues.
  3. The Physical Dimensions of Sustainability Management. Here we focus on the connections between environmental inputs (i.e. natural resources) and outputs (i.e. energy), and their effects on the natural environment. Modern managers must understand the environmental impacts from organizational activities and learn to control the costs of resource use and waste generation.
  4. The Public Policy Environment of Sustainability Management. Policy shapes how urban environments are managed, and sustainability practitioners must be able to analyze public policy and its effects on what they are able to do. Policy also provides incentives that enable some experimental sustainability practices to become cost effective.
  5. General and Financial Management. General management is needed to influence the behavior of an organization and thus carry out effective sustainability initiatives and other organizational activities. Allocating and tracking financial resources, of course, is the single most important tool of the effective manager

Both of these masters programs work to integrate environmental science and design with management, finance and public policy analysis. It is increasingly difficult for me to see how anyone can claim to be well trained in management in our business schools or competent in policy analysis, in our public policy schools, if they lack any knowledge of the physical dimensions of sustainability. We teach our public leaders to understand political trade offs and analyze stakeholders; we teach our business leaders about financial and organizational constraints and capacities. How can we avoid looking at resource use, waste management and environmental impacts? These physical dimensions are no longer simply engineering issues or "externalities" but factors that influence an organization's ability to survive and thrive. These are core issues of organizational management. One only needs to think about BP last summer in the Gulf of Mexico to acknowledge the centrality of sustainability issues to organization management. My mantra this entire year has been that before long all competent management will be sustainability management, and all competent managers must be sustainability managers.

In the early and mid twentieth century, we added accounting and financial tracking to the routine management of well run organizations. With that trend, we began to see Chief Financial Officers in many organizations. In the 1980's and 1990's, we saw the development of international desks, and in the late 20th century, we saw the development of Chief Information Officers as organizations developed complex communications and performance tracking systems. Similarly, in the first two decades of this century, we will see the creation of Chief Sustainability Officer in our best run organizations. The old separation between environmental protection and effective management is ending. And not a moment too soon.